Tony Blair was pilloried for his modern Doublethink but David Cameron tops him, says Joyce McMillan
It’s 15 years, now, since posters began to appear at demonstrations and protests around Britain calling Tony Blair a “liar”. Placard-makers inverted the letters of his name, so that it read “Bliar”; and after he nailed his colours to the dodgy litany of “evidence” surrounding the decision to go to war in Iraq in 2003, the allegation that the then prime minister had deliberately misled the British public and parliament became endemic – and not only among his usual critics on the left.
Yet it always seemed to me that to call Blair a “liar” didn’t quite capture the seriousness of what was going on. Politicians have always lied; but what seemed increasingly alarming about Tony Blair was his evident belief – at least at the time of speaking – that every word he said was true. The reasons he gave for Britain’s entry into the Iraq War probably represented the most glaring example of his ability to convince himself that what was extremely unlikely would definitely come to pass.
As the first Blair government unfolded, though, it was already obvious to any close observer that the prime minister’s rhetorical commitment to social justice was at many points fundamentally incompatible with the New Labour love-affair with neo-liberal capitalism. And in the end, this particular form of Doublethink became Tony Blair’s forte; the belief that he was a “good guy”, helping the most vulnerable in British society, when in fact he was often facilitating huge structural increases in inequality, and was certainly paving the way for the huge financial crash of 2008, for which ordinary British workers and taxpayers are still paying the price, almost a decade on.
Eight years after Tony Blair’s resignation as prime minister, though, I am beginning to think that he was something of an amateur at this Orwellian business of saying one thing while doing the exact opposite, compared with the present suave incumbent David Cameron, who even in coalition presided over Britain ‘s most right-wing government since the 1930’s, and is now chairing a Tory Cabinet determined to push even further in that direction.
This week in Manchester, for example, we heard Home Secretary Theresa May deliver a vicious speech in which she represented immigrants – completely inaccurately – as costing our society much, and contributing very little. We heard Jeremy Hunt, the millionaire health minister, announcing that the poor of Britain – including the disabled – have to be taught by deprivation to work their way out of poverty, as the workers of China and south-east Asia do. We heard Ian Duncan Smith declare that British workers have to be taught that “children cost money”, even if that lesson means plunging hundreds of thousands of innocent children into greater poverty; we noted the toxic psychological and social attitudes that underpin such remarks, cruel, high-handed, and profoundly inegalitarian.
We have seen all this; and then, at the end of the week, we see David Cameron take to the stage, and talk as if it this were all part of a sunny continuing progress towards the politics of enlightenment and equality. Spotting a gap in the market as the Labour Party appears to lurch to the left, Cameron delivers a classic centre-ground liberal speech, in the style of his Tory leadership campaign ten years ago. He majors on issues like gay marriage, and bizarrely portrays the Tories – who in fact strongly opposed every socially progressive reform in British history up to 2010 – as “the optimists, the agents of hope and the leaders of change” throughout the history of the UK.
Astonishingly, he declares that his mission, throughout the rest of his premiership, will be to campaign against poverty; and to wipe out all other forms of inequality of opportunity, including the gender inequality which every survey shows has been radically worsened by many of the austerity measures imposed by his government.
And of course, I don’t doubt for a moment that David Cameron believed every word of his speech, as he uttered it; it was the best and most passionate he has given in years. Like Tony Blair, though, he is the victim of a pervasive elite culture of denial, which claims that these social goods can be delivered, while at the same time knocking away all the props of enabling state power that make it possible to deliver them. Every available piece of evidence, for example, makes it clear that high levels of equality of opportunity cannot be achieved, while at the same time shrinking the state below its present UK level of around 40 per cent of GDP. On the contrary, all of the societies which do best in terms of equal opportunity and social mobility have state spending of around 45 per cent of GDP, or more; and British postwar social history, if we care to read it, also makes the same point.
Yet of course, there is no chance of David Cameron ever acknowledging these truths; if he wants to embrace the values of the enlightenment, he has to pretend that they are compatible with an extreme economic ideology that, always and everywhere, privileges wealth and its demands over the fundamental human right to an equal chance in life. And so he stands before the nation, and makes what is perhaps the most truly Orwellian speech in the whole history of British politics: he says that intolerance will bring us tolerance, that a perpetual war on terror will bring us peace, that drastic cuts in in-work benefits will make work pay, and that ever-increasing economic inequality will bring us equal opportunities.
It worked for Tony Blair, after all, through three general election victories, this strange disjunction between rhetoric and reality; some would argue that, in some respects, it has worked for the SNP. And now, it may well work for a Prime Minister who has shown himself a past master of the art: a man who means what he says, when he says it – and who, like almost everyone else caught up in the eerie looking-glass management systems of the 21st century, has a huge vested interest in never acknowledging the truth that his fine words are directly contradicted by almost every structural decision he makes, and by the ideology that underpins them all.